With Declan Rice’s game developing faster than almost any other young player in Europe, there is a growing sense that we may well be in the presence of greatness.
Who, or what, exactly is Declan Rice? A promising young lad released from Chelsea’s academy and snapped up by West Ham, becoming a fixture at the London Stadium at just 18; a full Irish international, persuaded to change allegiances by Gareth Southgate, only to become a crucial cog in England’s spine at Euro 2020, playing in every game. We all know the story so far. But what we are only now beginning to see is where that story goes.
Both geographically, you suspect, and existentially: as a footballer in the most fundamental sense. Described by both ex-Chelsea captain John Terry, and former head of academy recruitment at West Ham, David Hunt, as “the best in his position in world football,” it certainly is difficult to argue on current form. Where the point of contention comes, however, is what that position is.
Rice has described himself as a holding midfielder, and this is certainly the role that he has played for club and country in recent seasons. Yet, this season has seen a marked development to his game that renders the phrase somewhat insufficient. As Hunt said of Rice last year, “the frightening thing is he will find a way to get better again. He will keep going and going and going.” Already, it appears as though he has done so.
To look at his heat map from last season to this is to see a player playing more advanced; still in some sense nominally a holding midfielder, but one with licence to get forward.
What’s more, not only is Rice finding himself in more advanced positions, but he is now influencing games more when he does so. He has four Premier League assists this term, all from open play – ranking him joint-11th in the division – compared to only one last season. He has created 19 chances already, compared to 23 across 32 games in 2020/21, and has already outstripped last season’s final third passing statistics, ranking 8th in the league with 340.
This is not to say that Rice is no longer a holding midfielder per se; just that he is no longer only a holding midfielder. He still ranks in the top 10 for total interceptions (eighth), total possessions won in the middle and defensive thirds (both fourth) and total tackles (seventh), but he now also ranks 11th for take-ons completed, as opposed to 79th last season. In fact, of all central midfielders in the Premier League, there are only two who have made more than 35 successful tackles and dribbles: one is Declan Rice, the other Bernardo Silva.
Patently, their games differ greatly, but in this statistic is written perhaps the most telling illustration of who Declan Rice is and what he can become: a complete midfielder, capable of almost anything in the game. Teddy Sheringham certainly thinks so. “I have to liken him to Steven Gerrard,” he recently told Genting Casino.
“Not many players can eat up the ground like Declan – Gerrard used to do exactly the same, he used to overpower people in midfield.”
Visually, with the long, rangy stride and phenomenal strength, the comparison certainly holds. And while Rice doesn’t have the goalscoring or passing attributes of the Liverpool legend right now, the speed of his development over the past couple of years suggests that there is no reason that these will not come in time.
And this is the crux of the matter. If the £100 million-plus figure touted for his sale last summer seemed slightly excessive then, it does not now. This is a player with strings to his bow that become more apparent with each passing game, and with a talent ceiling as high as any young central midfielder in the world. At having just turned 23, we are only now beginning to witness it.
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With all due respect to West Ham, it feels inconceivable that we will do so there. While they have laudably consolidated last season’s surprise top-four push with another this year, their squad is simply too thin for that to be maintained. And without actually breaking into the top four and securing Champions League football, the task for any outside the ‘Big Six’ to continue challenging is nigh-on impossible; just look at Leicester languishing in 11th for all the evidence you need here.
So, it follows that he will move on, and wherever he goes, he will improve them. The arrival of Rice at either Arsenal or Spurs – arguably the two most precarious of the established big guns, whose European places West Ham are trying to infiltrate – would be an instant upgrade.
Yet, the price tag renders the prospect of him heading to North London fanciful. The same can also be said of Liverpool, meaning that, realistically, there are only three potential Premier League destinations for him: Chelsea, and either of the Manchester clubs.
City somehow doesn’t feel right. Leaving aside last summer’s uncharacteristic splurge on Jack Grealish, City are a side with quite a defined transfer policy that would appear at odds with spending the amount that it would take to bring him to the club, and it is also difficult to see how this season’s Declan Rice 2.0 would fit in a Guardiola system. As City usually play with the one holding midfielder – so long as Pep fancies it – Rice’s newfound progressiveness would perhaps have to be neutered somewhat. Obviously, Guardiola is a tactical genius and Rice a prodigious learner, so this definitely could work, but there still remains something – probably, if we are honest, the nauseating prospect of City getting even better – that makes this move seem unlikely.
All of which leaves United and Chelsea, and you feel as though both would be improved by the prospect.
The narrative behind a potential move to Chelsea is compelling. Released as a youngster and the unfinished business that comes with it, and with his best friend Mason Mount a key component of their recent successes, things certainly make sense from that perspective. And so, too, stylistically. While Thomas Tuchel has tinkered with formations this season, his preference remains for a 3-4-2-1, with two central midfielders.
What those central midfielders are expected to do depends on the personnel available – Jorginho, for instance, is a far less dynamic presence than other options – but in Mateo Kovačić and N’Golo Kanté, Chelsea already have a pair of midfielders of Rice’s ilk.
Kovačić – who Rice has named as one of the top five midfielders in the league – is a fierce competitor who has out-tackled and out-duelled Rice this campaign, and who operates in a slightly more advanced position. Yet, they are similar in their willingness to run with the ball, and Rice’s progressive passing could provide another point to Chelsea’s attack. And in Kanté, himself a player whose game has evolved a more forward-looking quality, Chelsea already have perhaps the modern archetype of the player Rice can become. In terms of tackles, duels and take-ons, their statistical profiles are strikingly similar, with Rice again offering more by way of passes into the final third.
Whether or not Declan Rice is an immediate upgrade on what Chelsea have is open to debate. Yet, to debate it misses the point. While Kovačić is arguably playing some of his best football right now, Kanté is 31 next month, and injuries have meant that he hasn’t started more than two-thirds of a Premier League season since 2018/19. They are both players whose ceiling has been reached. Without wanting to labour the point, there is no telling how high Rice can go.
As for United, there is no question that this version of Declan Rice – or any version, for that matter – would instantly improve them to the point whereby they were firm favourites for a Champions League spot, and most probably beyond that. Comparing him to Fred, who often operates in the same role – nominally-defensive but with box-to-box licence, on the left-hand side of a midfield two – is to see the difference between a decent midfielder and a complete one. Fred, much-maligned but much-improved under Rangnick, actually averages more tackles, duels won, and chances created, but in Rice’s ability to move play forward, both with and without the ball, he provides so much more.
Yet, despite the ostensible positional similarities with Fred, it is arguably Scott McTominay who provides a more apposite comparison. Rangy, strong in the tackle, and with the engine to get up and down the pitch, McTominay is very much in the Declan Rice mould, and were United to make Rice a transfer priority, it is arguably his position that would be most under threat. While his tackling and duelling statistics are excellent, McTominay offers less progression with the ball at his feet, and far fewer involvements further up the field. And, given how Rice has improved here in recent years, while McTominay has somewhat stagnated, signing Rice would represent quite the upgrade.
With Rice’s apparent flirtation with United in his BT Sport interview, and United’s enduring penchant for a marquee signing, they seem on balance the most likely destination. Yet, wherever he goes, Declan Rice will offer something that none of West Ham’s top four rivals currently have: a truly world class central midfielder, with the very real potential to get much better. And while we may not know exactly what he is right now – be that Gerrard-esque or a holding midfielder or however you want to categorise him – one thing is becoming increasingly obvious: we are currently witnessing the formative years of a bona fide Premier League great.